THE death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks, the wounding of four of his fellow soldiers and the wounding in a separate incident of another Digger in Afghanistan yesterday tell us what it means to be an Australian soldier today. It means you will fight and die for the safety and causes of your country. It is a sacrifice very few are willing to make.
The Australians in southern Afghanistan are worthy of every Anzac tradition. They are among the best of the best. They deserve our gratitude and support.
The death of Marks also raises critical policy issues. Kevin Rudd was rightly sombre and direct when on Monday he spoke of Marks's death. Apart from expressing his sympathy, Rudd's comments had three policy messages: one of purpose, one of resolve and one of limitation.
As to purpose, Rudd reminded us why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. It was because "a failed state was giving open succour and support to a global terrorist organisation, al-Qa'ida, which then attacked our ally, the US, and murdered 3000 people". He might just as well have added, as Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson pointed out, that the terrorists who murdered Australians in large numbers in Bali were trained in Afghanistan.
As to resolve, Rudd told us what to expect: "2008 will be difficult and dangerous and bloody, and the Australian nation needs to prepare itself for further losses in the year ahead." That is the right way to speak to the nation about the war we are in.
As to limitation, Rudd said he had no plan to increase the number of Australian troops beyond its level today of a little more than 1000, which is the biggest contribution of any non-NATO nation, that his Government would annually review the effectiveness of the overall NATO strategy, and that Australia had written no blank cheques.
In other words, Australia would not stay if the fight was pointless and other nations had to share the burden, especially, though he didn't use these words, those Europeans who won't let their troops fight.
The strategic rationale for our presence in Afghanistan is strong, though the strategic prognosis is clouded. And the nation should also take note that the conflict is having a unique and perhaps profound influence on the Australian way of war and even the structure of the Australian Defence Force.
The strategic rationale for the allied effort in Afghanistan is clear enough. Without the allied presence, Hamid Karzai's Government would be overwhelmed and some combination of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and the drug lords would take power again.
This would be not only a ghastly tragedy for the Afghan people but itwould be a territorial conquest forglobal terrorism and extremist, nihilist Islamism. Global terror would once again have a completely permissive state.
The US National Intelligence Estimate last year, plus congressional testimony of US intelligence chiefs, is quite clear that al-Qa'ida, including its central leadership, has re-established itself in the tribal areas of north Pakistan and in the borderland areas of Afghanistan. And they continue to plot attacks against the US and against us.
There is a vogue in terrorism analysis to emphasise the diverse processes of radicalisation and the decentralised nature of al-Qa'ida sympathisers today. Both these phenomena are real. But Georgetown University's Bruce Hoffman, one of the world's foremost experts on terrorism, points out in the US journal Foreign Affairs that the great processes of Islamist radicalisation we see today are a direct consequence of strategic planning by al-Qa'ida central in the 1980s and '90s.
It may be that one day the West decides to abandon Afghanistan again. That day will be a day of signal defeat and full of danger. The last time we abandoned Afghanistan it led not only to the creation of religious totalitarianism but global terrorism.
In time this terrorism is more likely than not to acquire nuclear or radiological capacity. If that day comes, no decision to abandon Afghanistan to its fate will look very smart.
But the strategic prognosis for Afghanistan is very clouded.
The Special Operations Task Group, of which Marks was an outstanding member, has done magnificent work in chasing the Taliban around and making the environment for it unfriendly.
Of course our task group is small. But the real reason we cannot decisively win the war against the Taliban is because of Pakistan. The best recent analysis of the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban appears in the spring 2008 issue of The Washington Quarterly and is written by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Tellis traces the complex web of patronage, tribal affiliations, radicalisation of tribal leaders, former Pakistani military support of the Taliban and of terrorist groups that attacked India to describe how Pakistan has got to where it is today. In his analysis, even if it wanted to, and that is a big if, Pakistan lacks the institutional capability to go after the Taliban leadership or deny the Taliban the use of its territory.
For the moment, this fatally compromises our campaign against the Taliban.
Moreover, he describes how diverse the Taliban coalition has become: "(There is) the leadership council centred around Mullah Omar, other war councils, Taliban cadres, tribal networks of former mujaheddin commanders, Pakistani Taliban commanders ... drug lords in eastern and southern Afghanistan are either taxed or willingly contribute revenues that are indispensable for the Taliban... sundry former anti-Soviet commanders, disaffected Afghan Pashtun tribes. Finally, al-Qa'ida, although distinct (from the other groups) in that its focus of operations remains the global jihad, nonetheless collaborates with the Taliban to assist the latter in recovering control of Kabul while continuing to preserve a sanctuary in (the tribal areas of Pakistan)."
This is indeed a long war. And the nature of the Australian Army is changing partly as a consequence.
From World War II until the end of the Vietnam War, the Australian Army had a great deal of combat experience. After Vietnam, it got very little combat experience. During that time we typically supported coalition efforts - as in Iraq in 1991 - with token naval forces kept out of harm's way. Our under-equipped and ill-financed soldiers did magnificent work in peacekeeping. East Timor was a rude wake-up call and our troops performed superbly, but it was not a combat environment.
All this changed with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. We sent the Special Air Service in for bursts of ferocious combat and they acquitted themselves magnificently. But we were very cautious. We would only really use the SAS, not other army units, for combat operations. Afghanistan has seen the commandos, of which Marks was a proud member, come into their own as a magnificent fighting force alongside the SAS.
In time, I imagine, other infantry units will be similarly deployed. The commandos have covered themselves in glory in the world's most difficult environment. The consequences for our army could be profound.
(Article reprinted with thanks from "The Australian" 01 May '08)